Many degrees of separation

  • Namita Bhandare
  • Updated: Sep 26, 2014 23:01 IST

If the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has its way, Muslims in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat will not be participating in the ongoing Navratri festivities. While vigilant Durga Vahini members will campaign against ‘love jihad’, others will ensure that single Muslim men do not enter garba dance venues, or force them to drink purifying cow urine and sing Vande Mataram.

The sub-text is clear. The self-appointed thekedars of Hinduism are pushing forward their fantastical ‘love jihad’ campaign. Won’t young Muslim men use the garba festivities to ensnare hapless Hindu women?

In a stunning display of competitive stupidity, Sufi Imam Mehndi Hussain, the cleric who offered the famously rejected cap to then chief minister Narendra Modi in 2011, has pronounced his own views: “Garba is attended by rakshasas (devils).” In the face of the outrage that followed, the imam said he had been misquoted but it was too late and he has now been dispatched to jail.

Festivals are one of organised religion’s greatest redeeming features. There are few Indians who do not play Holi or light crackers during Diwali or put up Christmas trees or visit friends during Eid. In many erstwhile princely states, it was the Hindu maharaja who led the tazia processions. And in my own South Delhi locality, the decibel levels generated by a mosque, a gurdwara and a temple are such an ingrained part of the daily rhythm of my life that I have forgotten to be annoyed by them.

Festivals foster an understanding of beliefs different to one’s own. To witness a Ganga aarti at Haridwar is to understand the profoundly moving emotion of faith and to recognise this as the same emotion that suffuses a candle-lit church or the faithful bending in supplication at congregational prayer.

It was in recognition of religions’ capacity to unite that Lokmanya Tilak revived the concept of sarvajanik (community) Ganeshutsav in an effort to boost a sense of pan-Indian nationalism. Over a hundred years later, the festival continues to bring together Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Christians as participants, performers and idol-makers. In fact, the oldest Ganesh pandal in Mumbai, Guruji Talim Mandal, is said to have been set up in 1887 by two Hindus and two Muslims.

In Ahmedabad where locals talk of borders — Muslims on one side, Hindus on the other — the effects of ghettoisation are already visible. Juhapura on the city’s outskirts that had a population of 2.5 lakh prior to the 2002 riots, has now swelled to over 4 lakh Muslims. But it’s not Ahmedabad alone. In cosmopolitan Mumbai, Hindu and Jain landlords routinely turn away Muslim tenants on the grounds that “they eat beef”. A survey by Action Aid and the Indian Social Institute of two Muslim-dominated localities, Nizamuddin Basti in New Delhi and Juhapura in Ahmedabad found that 55.6% of those surveyed had migrated here only within the last 10 years; 45.7% because they said they feared anti-Muslim violence. In some cases, researchers are documenting how Muslims prefer to live in their own enclaves in an environment free of ‘corrupting’ Hindu influence. And in Greater Noida, the Adarsh group is reportedly building ‘dream homes for elite Muslim brotherhood’.

Ghettoisation is not just geographic distance but includes a separation of communities that have lived and celebrated together for years. As lines harden, a composite ganga-jamuni culture gives way to even less understanding and empathy for the ‘other’. Instead of one country, we become a nation of mini states, partitioning our common heritage into narrow fragments.

A festival tells those who are not of our religious persuasion who we are and what moves us. Why do we fast or dance. Why we celebrate the power of the Mother Goddess during Navratri. Religion at its best embraces, not excludes which is precisely why we need to invite and not dis-invite those who don’t practise our beliefs.

At a time when every Indian is, rightfully, celebrating the success of our mission to Mars, how sad is it that here on earth, citizens of the same country should be working to exclude others from its celebrations?
The views expressed by the author are personal

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